Do One Thing

This summer I walked into the Tech Stars office in Cambridge greeted by the smells of an older building and an awkwardly empty reception area.

I’m not sure why I expected a scrappy start-up incubator to have a well dressed receptionist chirping hello and offering me filtered water in a paper cup, but I did. So without a guide I wandered around looking for a start-up in need of guidance.

Most start-ups have a similar problem. There is no clear map or guide. So they start wandering. Along the way they quickly begin picking up activities. They get busy — too busy.

I’ve seen it again and again. Too many projects, too many goals, too many action items, and soon your at one of those Easter events, down on your hands and knees trying to roll a hand painted hardboiled egg across a freshly cut lawn with your nose before the person next to you pulls ahead, except you’re pushing twenty eggs and none of them are getting anywhere.

The answer to this problem is simple. It was recently pounded into my head again by a mentor who chose a blunt force instrument to make the point:

Do One Thing.

It’s a good rule at every level. Do one thing right now (stop multi-tasking). Pick one thing to focus on this week. Choose one thing at this stage in your Newco’s lifecycle that is absolutely the most important focus.

Of course, choosing one thing is the mechanics. The art is choosing the right thing, which is almost entirely a function of stage. Here are some examples:

A. No product – When you don’t have a product, the one thing you do is meet customers, so you can figure out what the product should be. One thing: meet customers.

B. Building Product – Now the one thing is to ship the minimal viable version. Everything that is not involved with shipping the right product as fast as possible is a distraction.

C. Launching the Product – Now you shift again. One thing, get everyone on the team focused. Launch. That’s it, just launch.

This goes on and on. But if you know the one thing — reference customers, a key partnership, market share, revenue, closing a financing, etc. — the water goes from muddy to clear and life gets easier. You stop costly context switching, and create positive feedback loops in your work.

I’ve been surprised at how often young entrepreneurs try to do too many things at the same time or the wrong thing at the wrong time: writing code before they’ve figured out their customers’ needs, fundraising without a focus or a plan, jumping from project to project and meeting to meeting.

I’m not suggesting that you completely serialize your work just that you have a North Star and use it as a clear guide at any given stage. Having a primary goal will unify everyone on your team and increase the whole company’s productivity. The same goes for each individual. Everyone is making some contribution to the team’s one thing, and each person should have their own one thing that they are focused on to get to that result.

A way to think about this is to ask your selves: What is the most important thing for us to accomplish this quarter as a company? If that’s winning five reference customers, then it doesn’t mean that you stop engineering, but it may mean that engineering prioritizes their time to support winning the customers. If you’re most important accomplishment is to ship a product release that doesn’t mean the sales team stops selling, but they should understand that engineering is heads down and can’t sit in on as many calls or take in new random feature requests.

When asked “How do you run 100 miles?” endurance running legend Dean Karnazes wrote: “You don’t run 100 miles. You run to the next stop sign.” Getting to the next milestone should be your one thing.

So cut the multi-tasking. Don’t try to solve every problem all at once, and figure out the one thing you should be doing now. Then get your company aligned and focused on the most important accomplishment for this week, month, or quarter.

After wandering around the Tech Stars office a bit I found some start-ups, and a few of them were more lost than I was. Luckily, I’d already driven on the road they were heading down, so I could sound like a visionary:

Entrepreneur: “What’s next?”

Me: “You will find a gas station in two miles.”

Entrepreneur: “Really? How do you know the future?”

Me: “I passed that station about an hour ago, and then drove back. It’s on the left.”

And therein sits the man behind the curtain.

P.S. Most of the Tech Star companies did in fact find their way to the next stage, and are on their way to building innovative new businesses.

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